• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

EYE-TO-EYE: NASCAR MUST PROTECT FAN-DRIVER MOMENTS


When I was a kid, growing up in Philadelphia, the President of the United States made a speech at Independence Hall on July 4, 1962. My family went to see John F. Kennedy that day. I remember that, somehow, we maneuvered to a great location among the tens of thousands, front row of the second tier of spectators. I remember my line-of-sight was almost head-on, the angle just slightly to the President’s left. I remember JFK wore a suit and tie on a sunny and hot morning. I remember remembering his words extolling patriotism and freedom the following October, when we feared an all-out nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember the excitement of the occasion matched the go-go energy of the times; America was on the way to the moon; we thought everything in the world was possible.

I remember, most of all, what happened after his remarks. President Kennedy stepped away from the podium and smiled while showered with applause. I remember a moment when – I swearhe looked at me! At least, that’s the way it seemed then, and that’s the way I remember it today. It was the thrill of a young lifetime – I went home and boasted to all the neighbors -- “the President waved at me!” -- and it remains in focus in the photo album of my memory.

NASCAR fans want and need that kind of eye-to-eye contact – even from a distance -- with their heroes, too. It is supposed to happen during driver introductions, on stage, and again when the racers are paraded around in open vehicles shortly before the green flag. All-too often, however, the paying customers are being denied that thrill – and that just isn’t right.

This has become virtually standard practice: Whatever network is televising the race puts their pit announcers in the convertibles or pickups for a few words from the newsmakers. The scene pains me. While we at home get a couple of sentences that almost always are uninformative – Question: “Can you do it today?” Answer: “I sure hope so.” – the driver faces the camera with his back to the ticket buyers.

Let me phrase that another way: The driver is turning his back to the customers. And, to be fair to our TV friends, sometimes uninterviewed drivers busily chat away and don’t pay attention – that is, show respect and appreciation – to the fans.

That’s wrong. It’s bad PR for the driver, his sponsors, NASCAR and the track. It should stop.

The people who travel long distances and sit in traffic and brave the weather and make these events possible by spending their hard-earned money – and who live and love the NASCAR lifestyle – deserve better. Young or old, they deserve a sincere look, smile, and wave.

NASCAR has long prided itself on being responsive to the fans. It’s fair to say that’s one reason NASCAR is NASCAR in today’s major-league sports landscape. Adding overtime, to try to give the spectators a green-flag finish, is an obvious example of this philosophy. The organization also has gained a deserved reputation in the broadcast industry for its willingness to be cooperative and innovative with its TV partners. That certainly has paid off.

But the television people have many opportunities to interact with the competitors. The majority of the public does not. So, when it comes to protecting its’ fans “JFK moment” with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne or any of the other drivers, NASCAR should stand tall and tell TV “not now.”


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]